Friendly competition has TBs eyeing top 5

Updated: April 14, 2005, 1:13 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In the grand history of Auburn University football, at least the era that corresponds with the past 35 NFL drafts, the Tigers have had only 24 running backs selected, and only seven of those came in the first three rounds.

Not since the Green Bay Packers chose Brent Fullwood with the fourth overall pick in 1987 has the school claimed a first-round running back. In fact, the litany of Auburn first-round backs is limited to its glorious triumvirate of the '80s: Fullwood, legendary Bo Jackson in 1986 and James Brooks in '81.

Position-by-position schedule
In preparation for the NFL draft (April 23-24, ESPN), Len Pasquarelli and John Clayton will roll out a position-by-position look at draft prospects, along with a breakdown for each position. Click here to see the complete schedule.
Only three times since the professional football merger of 1970 – in 1996, 1998 and 2001 – has Auburn boasted two running backs picked in the same draft. And all of those backs were middle-round selections.

So what are the odds that in one draft, more specifically the one that convenes April 23, Auburn would have a pair of first-round runners? How about two runners among the top 10 selections, heck, maybe in the top five?

Well, pretty good, actually.

Carnell "Cadillac" Williams led Auburn with 1,165 yards last season.

Indeed, in a draft in which the tailback pool is defined by the so-called "Big Three," the Tigers' undefeated team of 2004 has produced two players, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown, in that highly regarded trinity of runners. For a program that prides itself so openly on playing old-fashioned, SEC football but whose unabashed affinity for the physical running game hasn't exactly translated into churning out tailback prospects on a regular basis, it is payback time. It's as if Auburn's perfect record in '04 has gathered into the perfect tailback storm.

Most scouts feel that Brown, despite never starting more than seven games in a season and with a résumé that includes only one 1,000-yard campaign, will be the top tailback selected in the draft, followed by Williams, then Cedric Benson of Texas. For sure, the plains of eastern Alabama have produced a pair of prospects who are anything but ordinary.

"People talk all the time, don't they, about how competition makes you better?" Brown said recently. "Well, day in and day out at practice, you had two excellent running backs competing on the same field and in the same backfield. Cadillac would push me, and I would push him. And the end result is that we kind of both pushed each other to the top. I don't know that either of us would be where we are without the other one around."

Chances are that, even without the torrid battle over playing time and carries and starts, the more celebrated Williams and the late-emerging Brown would still be poised to reap the benefits of a fat first-round contract. But there is little doubt that The Cadillac and The Hummer, as Brown has recently come to be known, drove each other hard as they traversed a road now paved with gold.

The most remarkable accomplishment of Auburn's double-edged tailback sword is that splitting time at a high-profile position on the field never split their relationship off it. The semi-platoon system enacted by coach Tommy Tuberville created a rare camaraderie. Sharing carries led to sharing aspirations and pulling for each other.

"Lots of times in a situation like we were in," Williams acknowledged," there could be a lot of selfishness or [pettiness]. I mean, every back wants to be the back, right? But from the very first day, I think there was a mutual respect, and a feeling that, if we just hung together, we would make it together."

Except for the occasional spat over video games, swears Auburn standout quarterback Jason Campbell, no one has ever seen Brown and Williams angry at each other. Their long-running debate over which should be the first tailback off the draft board – "Oh, there is no doubt I think it's me and Ronnie thinks it's him," Williams allowed – usually is more good-natured needling than pointed commentary.

"They are a pretty unique pair," Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said.

Just how rare, in terms of one school having two such talented running backs selected in the opening round of a draft, are Williams and Brown?

In the modern history of the draft, the feat has occurred only three times: Leo Hayden (Minnesota Vikings) and John Brockington (Green Bay Packers) of Ohio State in 1971; the Florida Gators' tandem of John L. Williams (Seattle Seahawks) and Neal Anderson (Chicago Bears) in 1986; and Roger Vick (New York Jets) and Rod Bernstine (San Diego Chargers) of Texas A&M in 1987.

Several veteran scouts and personnel directors agree, though, that none of those other duets possessed the collective talent with which Brown and Williams will come into the league. The two differ in style, with Williams the classic slasher and Brown a stronger straight-line runner, but there isn't much separating their respective grades on teams' draft boards.

Williams certainly has the broader body of work, is the more "sudden" of the pair, and can score from anywhere on the field and in a variety of ways, including returning punts and kickoffs. He is a tougher runner inside than his long, lean frame indicates – and it was Williams, not the bigger Brown, who usually got the ball in short-yardage situations.

Brown is blessed with fullback size but tailback-type speed. While Williams opened a lot of eyes at the Senior Bowl, Brown wowed scouts at the combine workout, as he demonstrated the kind of athleticism rare for a man of his physical dimensions. And he is such an accomplished receiver that Brown was sometimes aligned in the slot to take advantage of his skills in the passing game.

There has been talk that Brown, whose stock began rising last year and has skyrocketed in the months since the season ended, could be the second name called on April 23. But the suspicion is that Miami, which holds the No. 2 slot but is trying hard to deal it, will not use the pick on a runner if forced to exercise the selection. That said, Brown is still likely to snap a drought in which there hasn't been a tailback chosen in the top five since San Diego picked LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001.

"No matter, because, from everything we're hearing they're still both going remarkably high," Tuberville said.

Lots of times in a situation like we were in, there could be a lot of selfishness or [pettiness]. I mean, every back wants to be the back, right? But from the very first day, I think there was a mutual respect, and a feeling that, if we just hung together, we would make it together.
RB Carnell Williams

Nearly as remarkable is that both star tailbacks stayed around to complete their college eligibility. It would have been easy for either – Williams was projected as no worse than a second-round choice had he gone into the 2004 draft as an underclass entry, and Brown earned his degree in communications last spring – to have bolted the other's rather lengthy shadow. The disappointment of a 2003 season gone awry and the sense they had unfinished business kept both players in school, thus presenting Tuberville and his staff with the rather pleasant conundrum of divining how to juggle playing time again.

Williams remained the feature back, but Brown – a gifted receiver many scouts feel has better hands than many of the wideouts in the '05 draft class – got his touches, as well. Tuberville, offensive coordinator Al Borges and running backs assistant Ed Gran all insist that neither player ever showed up in his office complaining about the distribution of carries.

Fact is, the Auburn backfield was actually less crowded in 2004 than it had been the previous season, when Brandon Jacobs was around. Jacobs, who equaled Brown's rushing output in 2003 and whose 6.2-yard-per-carry average was superior to the marks of his more famous teammates, transferred to Southern Illinois for the '04 campaign. He is one of the fastest rising players in the draft pool.

But he still isn't in the draft stratosphere occupied by Brown and Williams.

"Those two guys are pretty special," said Jacobs, when asked about his former teammates at the combine in Indianapolis. "They compete hard – against each other, and just in general, too. It's going to be interesting to see, when they go their separate ways in the NFL, what each of them uses for motivation. Because, really, they were basically the motivation for each other [in college]. I mean, they shared a lot."

And now they figure to share a destiny in the top 10 of the draft.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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